The Tenderness of God
Minister: Revd Dr. Ian Tutton
‘…And He had compassion on them…’ (Matthew 14, 14b)
In a former life I worked in a steelworks, and one of the processes involved was ‘tempering’ – reducing the ‘hardness’ of the steel to increase its ‘toughness’ – a process that appears at first glance to be paradoxical: less hard, more tough. But it is a perfect way to understand God and God’s dealings with us. A Holy God, a Holy & Righteous God is a hard God; and more than that if that were all there is to God’s nature, it would be impossibly hard for God to in any way enter into a direct relationship with us, and so by an act of grace, God determined to ‘temper’ His nature in and through the incarnation – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. What had hitherto been impossibly hard is now incredibly tough: with God nothing indeed is impossible, but to do what God has done in Jesus is incredibly tough (Philippians 2, 5 – 11 sums it up perfectly)
In Jesus God reveals His tender side; in Jesus we have revealed to us God who is ‘tough minded’ precisely because He is ‘tender hearted’ – what the New Testament might refer to as ‘compassion’…
“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.” (Henry J.M. Nouwen).
This is the essence of God’s mission in Jesus Christ – not as a hard and heartless bystander forever tut tutting away to Himself, ‘I told you so’, but rather a living expression of tender hearted toughness that overcomes the inherent squeamishness that holds us back by plunging straight in and getting right to the heart of the human condition.
“Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to places where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.” (Henri J.M. Nouwen).
Hence, we should not be surprised that the most obvious evidence that is called for from anyone who is a Christian is that of a tender heart; indeed, if we think or imagine ourselves to be a Christian and yet cannot find it within ourselves to be compassionate to others, in particular to those who live beyond the comfort zone of like mindedness, the we needs must ask serious questions of ourselves regarding just what it means to be a Christian, i.e. to be in a living, vibrant, effective and productive relationship with the God revealed in Jesus. Worse still is any attempt on our part to deny that tenderness to ourselves, and in so doing deny ourselves the opportunity to be tender in our treatment of others. Our identity rests in God’s relentless tenderness for us revealed in Jesus Christ.”
Brennan Manning: ‘Abba’s Child, The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging). Hence, “To ignore, repress, or dismiss our feelings is to fail to listen to the stirrings of the Spirit within our emotional life. Jesus listened. In John’s Gospel we are told that Jesus was moved with the deepest emotions (11:33)… The gospel portrait of the beloved Child of Abba is that of a man exquisitely attuned to His emotions and uninhibited in expressing them. The Son of Man did not scorn of reject feelings as fickle and unreliable. They were sensitive antennae to which He listened carefully and through which He perceived the will of His Father for congruent speech and action.” (Brennan Manning: op cit).
This is how God works in us. God tempers our instinctive hard heartedness by having compassion upon us, softening our hearts that we might ourselves become tender hearted as far as our attitude towards others is concerned. This will be tough for us, God knows this, hence the giving of the Holy Spirit according to whom God will so work in our lives that however tough is the challenge that confronts us, we will always be able to respond as we ought with compassion and tenderness; in so doing we will play our full part in establishing God’s Kingly rule at the heart of the world. What makes the Kingdom come is heartfelt compassion: a way of tenderness that knows no frontiers, no labels, no compartmentalizing, and no sectarian divisions.” (Brennan Manning: op cit). And so, we are privileged to have had made known to us a God who is indeed Holy and Righteous, this is not a God who is hard and harsh and forgiving. Rather we are privileged to have been encountered by a God, who in Jesus has tempered such hardness in order that we might experience the compassion of One who is the embodiment of tender heartedness; One who in Jesus has thereby has embarked upon a mission to win the world to Himself, as tough a task as anything on earth; and we have been enlisted in His service: in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake we are called to win the world for God – and how…just like this…
”You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” (John Bunyan)